Style vs. Empathy
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
- Paul from 1 Corinthians 9
When Paul wanted to reach a particular group of people he did it, by using empathy. That is to say, he worked to see things from another point of view, the point of view of his audience, and in doing so, I believe, laid out the most effective method for connecting with people.
Today, churches all over the U.S. are finding themselves on the outside of their communities looking in. On the whole, we seem to be growing older and more irrelevant. That’s the bad news. The good news, is that many churches are attempting to do something about it, and I applaud their efforts, but what I’m most interested in discussing here, is what, exactly, are we changing?
It seems to me, in an attempt to reach new people, many churches get primarily focused on style. It’s all about having a cooler light show, a more casual dress code, nifty sermon videos and a more aggressive worship experience. And guess what? There’s nothing wrong with any of that stuff, but unfortunately, it misses the point entirely.
Here’s a quick way to see the difference between the two approaches.
Style = dressing up what you already have in order to make it more appealing.
Empathy = seeing the world from another person’s point of view and adapting your presentation so that it makes sense from that point of view.
Do you see the difference? One is about making everyone see things from your point of view and the other is adapting what you know to be true so that it makes sense from a totally different point of view. We’re not talking about changing the truth, or watering it down in some way to make it easier to swallow, we’re talking about speaking from a different point of view.
This is the genius of Paul’s approach. He “became” like the people he wished to reach. That meant he’d have to listen to them, study them, get to know them in order to see the world their way and when you see it like that, it becomes about so much more than style.
Recently, I visited a large church that had just opened a brand-new, state-of-the-art auditorium filled with moving lights and giant video screens. They had all of the technology that so many churches wish they had and yet somehow it all felt flat.
As I sat there it began to dawn on me just what was going on. For them, any changes they had made were simply an issue of style rather than truly empathizing with those outside of their community. Everything was geared to insiders. No attempt was made to explain anything or even allow for any point of view other than their own and as a consequence I didn’t see a young, dynamic, thriving church, but rather an old, stale, rigid church. I felt completely out of place and totally unwelcome. No one said hello to me, no one welcomed me or seemed genuinely happy that I was there at all. As much as I hate to say it, if I lived in that community I’d never go back.
In the last decade our church has gone through a massive shift and by all accounts the changes that we’ve made have been wildly successful. We’re seeing more people come than ever before and we’re also seeing more people baptized than ever before. By far. But the success of our change didn’t come from a style change so much as from a personality change. The biggest shift was to intentionally begin thinking about things from other points of view. We had to allow room for people, who completely disagreed with our beliefs, to come and feel welcome, while they heard about the love of Christ.
All of this required systems changes, policy changes and wholesale staff changes as many people on the team weren’t on board with this new focus, but we couldn’t let their trepidation keep us from doing what we felt like God called us to do. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy and we didn’t get it perfect right away. I’m convinced we still aren’t doing it perfectly, but the shift towards empathy is noticeable and it’s making a huge difference.
So, to wrap this up, let me be clear, I’m not saying that style doesn’t matter, but rather, if style doesn’t follow empathy, it will fail every time. Empathy comes first, otherwise, as far as the lost are concerned, we’re only putting lipstick on the pig.